Is a dry unrelatable jarble of phrases from the 1500’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “poetry?” If so, that needs to change. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Our world is alive with vibrant poetry all the time. It’s in the sounds around us, the nightmares we wake up from (and those we don’t wake up from), and the songs we love. Poetry is in us all; we just need to open our eyes, hearts and ears.
In her keynote address at the 85th Annual League of Utah Writers’ Quills Conference, award-winning poet and horror writer Linda Addison expressed that although a lot of people think poetry is inaccessible, it’s not. Her enthusiasm for expressing both the beauty and pain of life came through as she addressed the remote audience over Zoom during the Poet’s breakfast Sunday morning. She encouraged writers to “write wildly.”
Throughout the conference, experts have shared their versions of this message: be yourself, write what you love, allow your emotions to show. Some have focused on the more abstract approach such as author and outgoing president of the League Johnny Worthen’s workshop “Writing Dangerously.” He recommended connecting more deeply to your “why” and staying authentic as a writer. Others presented concrete tools for boiling down your writing to bring out the poetry, no matter what form or genre you write in. Angie Hodapp’s “MFA in Half a Day” helped writers sharpen their ears and attend to using sound to create mood in each scene. Lance Larsen’s “Be a Poet even in Prose” offered tips for prose writers who want to capture more poetry in their novels, short stories and nonfiction work. Author and musician Donna Lynch lead a hands-on workshop on horror poetry, opening up a whole new set of skills for writers to use in making sense of this crazy world.
How Poetry Can Improve Your Writing and Your Life
First, writing. We all love a good run-on sentence, especially if we are the one writing it. But think how much more impact your sentence could have if you striped away extra words and allowed the meat of it to show. In “Be a Poet Even in Prose,” Brigham Young University English professor Lance Larsen took the Quills audience into academia for an exploration of how to cut out the excess.
He suggested using your own words rather than cliches and loading your sentences with conflict. Another new tidbit this writer picked up from Quills is the concept of filters.
Filters, according to many presenters including Maxwell Drake (“Filtering the Rot Inside Your Story”) are words that take the reader away from the character or action. For example, first draft sentence: “She heard the baby cry in the other room.” Take out the filter and you get: “The baby cried in the other room.” We know she heard it without saying that, and the second way, we experience the crying rather than just her hearing it. Poetry, according to Addison, is “taking away words.”
Along with punching up your prose, if you allow it to, poetry can change your life. Adding impact to your writing can help move your career forward and create fun for your readers. Poetry can enhance your day to day life as well. The way Linda Addison put it, sitting down and letting out what is inside you, without the filters we are all taught, can allow you to work through emotions. She advised writers to “be raw” and worry about whether to share it later. The important thing is to get it out. Many artists are criticized growing up for daydreaming too much or having their heads in the clouds. Addison and other experts at Quills encouraged attendees to embrace daydreaming and imagination. “We’re taught to be quiet, to be nice,” said Addison. When we write, especially in a first draft, we can set that aside and “be impolite.” She affirmed the value of embracing who we are, giving voice to emotion and experience no matter how painful, socially frowned upon or awkward.
Ways to Let Poetry into your world
First, “write wildly,” as Addison said. Let yourself be uncensored. At least in your room, your notebook or your word processor. Other leading voices in the industry expressed the same ideas, including Nebula Award winning author Cat Rambo. In her workshop on “Beginnings and Endings,” she encouraged attendees not to worry about whether something is publish-able during the first draft. “Give yourself permission to write badly and trust you can rewrite it later.” She made the point that you can’t fix a blank page. Images of writers on the loose, scribbling awful first drafts of poems, novels, memoirs and freeing themselves from censorship gives me hope for the future.
Of course, at some point, you will need to decide the fate of what you have created. You may decide to share it; someone outside your apartment may be going through the same emotions. They may read what you’ve written and say, “wow, I thought I was the only one.” On the other hand, some things may be best kept private. Some art is just for the artist. If you stick it in a drawer or the last file on your computer’s drive, it still served its purpose.
If you do decide to share, you will need editing skills. Many classes and workshops at Quills schooled participants in this part of the process. Angie Hodapp in “MFA in a Half-Day” walked the class through exercises to practice the craft as well as the basics of cutting out extra to allow your work to shine. Lee Murray also gave a detailed lesson in her workshop “Slush to Shine: Self Editing Your Manuscript.” She taught the group how to polish up the most important parts of your book by “murdering your darlings.” While it may seem counter to the idea of letting your imagination loose, this process allows your message to come through clearly. This writer walked away from Quills with a heart full of inspiration and a notebook full of exercises and further reading recommendations.
Regardless of whether you share your work with friends, publish it for an audience, or keep it for yourself (or burn it in your backyard, as the case may be), let it out. Give voice to what is happening inside you because you don’t want it festering in there, and you never know who may be feeling the same. The ancients aren’t the only ones who get to play with poetry.
The League of Utah Writers is an organization dedicated to providing friendship and professionalism to writers from all walks of life, in all stages of career. Join the League here for the affordable price of $30 per year and begin taking part in write-ins (mostly remote right now) and classes.